The Book of Form and Emptiness

September 23, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Ruth Ozeki's novel, The Book of Form and Emptiness. Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest. She is the award-winning author of three novels, My Year of Meats, All Over Creation, and A Tale for the Time Being, which was a finalist for the 2013 Booker Prize. Her nonfiction work includes a memoir, The Face: A Time Code, and the documentary film, Halving the Bones.

During that first summer after Kenji’s death, Benny slept a lot and was more subdued than normal, but he never seemed to want or need to talk about his feelings, in spite of his mother’s encouragement to do so. Sometimes, on the brink of sleep, he thought he heard his father’s voice calling to him, jolting him awake again, but since nothing more ever happened, he never mentioned it.

The following fall, his seventh-grade homeroom teacher reported some issues with focus and attention, but the school counselor had been very supportive. She’d scheduled regular sessions with him and said she thought that the difficulties he was experiencing were a normal part of the grieving process. Grief, she said, was personal and expressed itself in many ways. This sounded right to Annabelle, and she was relieved when the counselor said they didn’t need to start thinking about medication unless the problems got worse.

Benny had never been the most popular kid in school, but he’d always had friends—odd, furtive little boys, with blank side-slipping eyes, un-washed hair, and moms whom Annabelle didn’t quite trust. Kenji would pick them up after school and bring them home, give them a snack, and send them outside to play in the yard, where she would see them when she came home from work.

Because Benny was mixed race, she worried about bullying. “Is that your real mom?” she’d hear them ask, and it was all she could do to keep from yelling, Of course I’m his real mother!, but Benny, untroubled, simply answered yes. The games they played caused her even more concern. Games like, “Okay, I’m the cowboy and you’re the Indian, and you can try to scalp me , and then I’ll massacre you.” Or when they were slightly older, “I’m the US Force Reconnaissance Marine, and you’re the ultranationalist Islamic terrorist, and you can try to blow me up and then I’ll obliterate you.” It seemed that Benny was always the one getting massacred or obliterated, but when she tried to discuss it with Kenji, he just laughed.

“They are boys,” he said. “I will make sure nobody gets obliterated.”

And indeed no one did. After Kenji died, the boys stopped coming over, and when Annabelle asked Benny about it, he just shrugged.

“I never liked them anyway. They’re jerks.” He didn’t seem concerned or lonely, and Annabelle was relieved. Except for the ongoing uncertainty about her job, they were doing all right as a family.

The job was a worry. When Annabelle met Kenji, she had just started her first year of a master’s degree program in Library Sciences. She had dreamed of becoming a librarian ever since she was little, when the Public Library had been her haven. As an only child, books were her best friends. Her mother was never much of a reader, and her stepfather was a drunk, but the librarians had always been kind to her. She was overjoyed when she was accepted into the MLS program, but then she got pregnant with Benny. With a baby coming, she knew it would be hard to get by on the money Kenji made playing gigs, so she left school and took a job at the regional branch of a national media-monitoring agency, where she’d been working ever since. She was a reader in the print department. Her job was to speed-read the stacks of local town and state newspapers that were delivered to the office every morning, and then to clip articles to send to the clients on topics relevant to their interests. Their clients were corporations, political parties, and special-interest groups, and the stories were mostly about local politics, environmental issues and bioregional industry—forestry, fishing, oil, coal, gas, resource extraction, gun control, and state and municipal elections. The guys at the office, who monitored the TV, radio, and online media, weren’t much fun to talk to. What made work enjoyable were the other Scissor Ladies.

When she started, there were four of them in Print. They were so cool with their Fiskars and X-Acto knives, metal rulers and OLFA mats, all swashbuckling and a little bit intimidating, but they welcomed her warmly, and she settled right in. They made a cozy team, sitting around the large table, clipping and chatting and sharing stories of interest, but one by one, the ladies moved on. The last two to leave were an older Black woman, who retired, and a middle-aged woman from Pakistan who spoke English perfectly and was getting her certification to teach ESL. Annabelle missed them. They’d been kind to her. When Kenji died, the local papers had carried humiliating stories about the accident, full of lurid details about squawking chickens, flying feathers, and drugs, but Annabelle noticed that the Scissor Ladies were quick to clip these articles and keep them from her, allowing her the dignity of her grief.

Their kindness made it all the harder when they left, but times were changing, and the rise of online news meant that Print, as a division, was struggling to survive. The banks of old tape decks and VHS recorders used for dubbing radio and TV had long ago been trashed and replaced by computers and digital equipment. The racks that had once held the machines sat empty, skeletal, gathering dust. Her remaining coworkers were all men with transferrable skills, the same guys who’d once gazed abstractedly at her bosom to relieve their boredom. Annabelle had always been pretty in a buxom, bygone era sort of way; you could imagine her sexily disheveled in a smock and bodice, heaving sloshing buckets of milk. But this was before Kenji died and she started putting on the weight. Now, her coworkers knew her days were numbered, and they ducked their heads behind their consoles to hide their pity for her plight. Dressed in baggy stretch pants and an oversized sweatshirt, scissors in hand, Annabelle sat alone and regal at the long worktable, surrounded by stacks of newsprint, with only the empty stools for company. She was the last of the Scissor Ladies, the end of an era.

No one was surprised when the email arrived from corporate head-quarters announcing the reorganization of the agency. All regional offices, including theirs, were being closed; but, happily, the email went on to say, this would not result in further job cuts. Instead, the agency would equip employees with the hardware and broadband Internet connections necessary to work from home. Annabelle’s coworkers were overjoyed. They liked the idea of free broadband and no commute. They liked the idea of rolling out of bed and working in their underwear, but Annabelle didn’t know what to think. There had been no mention of Print in the communications from HQ, and as the last Scissor Lady, she assumed the worst.

Dread set in like bad weather. Reluctant to have her fears confirmed, she waited, avoiding her supervisor and pretending to share her coworkers’ enthusiasm. She tried to stay positive. Maybe they would rent her a room with a worktable in a little office somewhere. That would be nice. Or, if they were phasing out Print, maybe she could ask to be retrained on the computers, although this seemed unlikely since the agency was notoriously sexist, and besides, she was more of an analog person. But maybe being laid off was exactly what she needed. Maybe the universe was sending her a message, clearing the way for a new job, something more creative and rewarding.

After four days of anxious wondering, she received a message from her supervisor informing her that the newspapers she monitored were being rerouted to her doorstep, and a computer, a modem, and a high-speed scanner would be delivered to her home and installed the next day.

That afternoon, Annabelle said goodbye to her coworkers and went home to take stock. Their house, one half of a duplex, was old and small, with an eat-in kitchen, a pantry, and a living room downstairs, and upstairs, two bedrooms and a bath. The only place to set up a home office was in the living room. Kenji had built shelves along the walls, where he kept his audio equipment, instruments, and vinyl records. All her books, crafting supplies, and eclectic collections—of vintage tin toys and porcelain doll parts, antique medicine bottles and old souvenir postcards from other people’s holidays—were also crowded onto the shelves, and Kenji’s ashes had found their way there, too. Annabelle had never gotten around to making a proper Buddhist altar, so the ashes sat on the shelf, shoved in next to a shoebox full of unsorted photographs. She’d meant to scatter the ashes somewhere and maybe make a ceremony with Benny over the summer, but they hadn’t gotten around to it, and the months had gone by, and who had time for ceremonies? She was a single mom with a dead husband and a young son to support. She took the box of ashes upstairs into her bedroom and shoved it on a high shelf at the back of her closet. Maybe when things settled down, they could do something special, like rent a boat and go out to sea. Maybe they could even go to Japan some day and scatter the ashes there.

Her collections and books she moved upstairs to the bedroom, arranging the toys on the windowsill and stacking the books in piles against the walls until she could get more shelves. The arts-and-craft supplies went into the upstairs bathroom—again a temporary measure until she could find some place better. Wiping the perspiration from her forehead, she returned to the living room and surveyed what was left. She knew she should think about getting rid of Kenji’s things, but the instruments were his prize possessions, and Benny might want them someday. A few of the albums were rare and probably valuable, but in order to sell them, she would need to find an appraiser. The only solution, she realized, was to pack everything into boxes and move them into Kenji’s closet.

Resolutely, she went back upstairs. She hadn’t looked inside the closet since the night she’d chosen the blazer for his funeral. Now, bracing herself, she pulled the door open again. Disturbed by the movement of air, the row of neatly hanging flannel shirts waved their arms in gentle greeting, but it was the smell that she first noticed—Kenji’s smell, pungent and salty like wind coming in off the ocean. It caught her off guard. She closed her eyes and leaned in, letting the smell envelop her, soft and warm against her skin. She inhaled until her lungs could hold no more, and then she exhaled a long, single, shuddering sob. With her eyes still shut, she plunged her hands in among the row of hanging clothes and wrapped her arms around a cluster of shirts, thick as a torso. She dragged it from the closet and heaved it onto the bed, then went back for the jackets, then the T-shirts, then the sweaters, again and again, until the entire contents of the closet were piled on the bed, and the closet was empty. Flushed from her exertions, she sat on the edge of the mattress, intending to rest for just a moment, but instead she fell back on the mound of clothes, burrowing into the loamy softness of her husband’s worn cotton, his faded denims, and his threadbare tweeds.

A strange warmth suffused the weave of the fabric, still lively with him, and so she dug deeper, pressing her face into the collars and pockets and sleeves, teasing out a whiff of smoke and whiskey—lingering nightclub scents that reminded her of the very first time he’d placed his hands on her shoulders and turned her and they’d kissed. She shivered with the memory. The sensation of scratchy wool and soft flannel felt so good against her skin, and she wanted more. She sat up and pulled her sweatshirt over her head, but as she stood to take off her sweatpants, she happened to glance in the mirror that hung on the back of the door. For a moment she stood there, staring at her reflection, at the large, pale body with its heavy folds of flesh, spilling from the binding of her undergarments, and then she looked away. Her gaze came to rest on the hard, red numbers of the digital clock beside the bed. It was almost three o’clock, time for school to let out. Benny hated when she made him wait. Slowly, she pulled her sweatshirt back on, and then she sat back down on the edge of the disordered bed and fingered the sleeve of a green flannel shirt whose cuff had come to rest on her knee. It was Kenji’s favorite shirt, a nice tartan, muted and threaded through with bands of yellow and blue. It would make a lovely quilt, she thought. People were doing that, making memory quilts from the clothing of departed loved ones. It was a beautiful idea, really, to wrap yourself up in memories and give old clothes a new life.


From The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, to be published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Ruth Ozeki Lounsbury.

More Story
This new vending machine will provide New Yorkers with short stories on the go. Struggling to read more but just can't find the time? Well, Brooklyn's Center for Fiction may have the solution (for free!)....

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.